The founder of Singapore built “a first-world oasis in a third-world region”
If he played chess, you could call Lee Kuan Yew the grand master of the game. It was his vision, drive and single-mindedness that set the small island state on a course of stubborn independence, turning the trading post into an international powerhouse of shipping, trade, commerce, banking, tourism and industry while keeping its principles at the fore.
But chess is a Russian game. For Yew, a master of the traditional board game maejong would be a better analogy given his and his island’s Asian ties.
There is a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed. Though he may be nearing the end of his long life, he’s unwilling to decide on his legacy.
“Close the coffin, then decide,” he said. “Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.”
A master communicator with a close connection to the pulse on his island state, he is aware that that clock is ticking down.
“So, when is the last leaf falling?” as the man who made Singapore in his own stern and unsentimental image, contemplating age, infirmity and loss.
Influential political figure
“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” he said in a recent interview. His ‘Singapore model’ of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”
No longer in day-to-day control but, for as long as he lives, the dominant figure of the nation he created.
But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness and death of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.
“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.”
Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’”
“What is next, I do not know,” he said. “Nobody has ever come back.”
The prime minister of Singapore from its founding in 1965 until he stepped aside in 1990, Lee built what he called “a first-world oasis in a third-world region” — praised for the efficiency and incorruptibility of his rule but accused by human rights groups of limiting political freedoms and intimidating opponents through libel suits.
His remains a powerful presence within the current government led by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The question that hovers over Singapore today is how long and in what form his model may endure once he is gone.
Always physically vigorous, Lee combats the decline of age with a regimen of swimming, cycling and massage and, perhaps more important, an hour-by-hour daily schedule of meetings, speeches and conferences both in Singapore and overseas. “I know if I rest, I’ll slide downhill fast,” he said.
“I’m trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it’s an effort, and is it worth the effort?” he said. “I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It’s become my habit. I just carry on.”
He brushed aside the words of a prominent Singaporean writer and social critic, Catherine Lim, who described him as having “an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner that has little use for sentiment.”
“She’s a novelist!” he cried. “Therefore, she simplifies a person’s character,” making what he called a “graphic caricature of me.” “But is anybody that simple or simplistic?”
Moment of anguish
But repeatedly, in looking back over his life, he returns to his moment of greatest anguish, the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, when he wept in public.
That trauma presented him with the challenge that has defined his life, the creation and development of a stable and prosperous nation, always on guard against conflict within its mixed population of Chinese, Malays and Indians.
“We don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors,” he said in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, “a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.”
Younger people worry him, with their demands for more political openness and a free exchange of ideas, secure in their well-being in modern Singapore. “They have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it,” he said. “They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that is never so.”
The kind of open political combat they demand would inevitably open the door to race-based politics, he said, and “our society will be ripped apart.”
A political street fighter, by his own account, he has often taken on his opponents through ruinous libel suits.
He defended the suits as necessary to protect his good name, and he dismissed criticism by Western reporters who “hop in and hop out” of Singapore as “absolute rubbish.”
In any case, it is not these reporters or the obituaries they may write that will offer the final verdict on his actions, he said, but future scholars who will study them in the context of their day.
“I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” he said, “but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”